The ability of the RAN’s LCM-1E landing craft to safely transport an Abrams M1AI main battle tank (MBT) from ship to shore in benign or rougher sea states will be put to the test in Exercise Sea Explorer, scheduled to begin in May.
Dependent on the outcome of these trials is Navy’s ability to declare Final Operational Capability (FOC) and project closure for its 12 LCM-1Es – now known as LHD Landing Craft (LLC) - an objective postponed from December 2016.
A further outcome could be a decision to no longer rely on the four LCM-IEs equipping each of Navy’s two 27,500-tonne Canberra class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) to transport MBTs to the shore.
One alternative would be to rely on the two Mexaflote motorised rafts carried by the 16,000 tonne Landing Ship Dock HMAS Choules, whose ability to transport an Abrams in a high sea state and their compatibility with the stern ramp of the LHDs has already been proven. This alternative would rely on Choules’ availability.
A more likely option would be to review the totality of the effect required ashore, and rely for this on other assets including the lighter Combat Reconnaissance and Infantry Fighting Vehicles being acquired under Project Land 400.
The first four LLC were delivered by Spanish shipbuilder Navantia in April 2014, and the final four in January 2016.
Australian modifications to the original LCM-1E design are understood to have included placing the engine exhausts higher in the hull to allow for extra weight, and adjusting the centre of gravity.
According to a RAN response to a question on notice at Senate Estimates in May 2016, the 23.3 metre, 56.6 tonne LLC has a maximum load carriage capacity of 65 tonnes in benign weather conditions, decreasing to 38.9 tonnes in Sea State 4 (wave height from 1.25 to 2.5 metres).
Trials in May 2016 were not completed “for safety reasons”, reportedly because the LLC sat lower in the water than anticipated when a 57-tonne Abrams was embarked.
According to Defence, quoted in the Australian National Audit Office’s 2016-17 Major Projects report, the trials’ intended resumption in late 2016 was postponed - until this May - “because you actually want to transit out the back of the ship in a docked position and we are not in that position right now to do that”.
CASG Head Kim Gillis told Parliament’s Public Accounts and Audit Committee on 23 March that the requirement was for an LCC to transport an Abrams as an administrative load (unfuelled and unammunitioned), and this it could do "in relatively benign sea states". These were not detailed.
Commodore Stephen Hughes, Director General of Navy Capability and Sustainment, said that one of the outstanding issues was not just the physicality of carrying an MBT "but the actual application of the tank in the amphibious warfare space".
We await developments.